For a band who take their name from the book that coined the term “muzak,” The Space Merchants’ new doozy of an album, Kiss the Dirt—out May 4 via Aqualamb Records—is anything but elevator music. The Brooklyn-based group’s sophomore record finds them traveling even farther than before, discovering new dive bars in another galaxy. The Space Merchants were already one of the most unique bands on this—or any—planet, but they’ve now perfected their singular sonic concoction that mixes up psych, stoner metal, country, blues, and Fleetwood Mac. This record is the sonic equivalent of having an acid trip in the bathroom between Woodstock and a ZZ Top concert in ‘69. However, behind all the personality and smoke, groove and melody are the true leaders of this Starfleet.
Kiss the Dirt was produced by Grammy-winning engineer James Brown—known for his work with Foo Fighters, Spoon, and Kings Of Leon, to name a few—and his keen ear for character and melody worked wonders for The Space Merchants’ sound. To hear their twin vocalists tell it, Brown’s work on the album came at the perfect time and helped them fully realize the version of the band they’ve had in their heads for years.
“Speaking for myself,” vocalist and keyboardist Ani Monteleone says, “I felt like the first couple years we were playing together, we were kind of experimenting and trying to find our sound. Sometimes, we wrote songs that were jangly and poppy; sometimes, the songs came out super heavy and drone-y. In my head, I always had this idea of what the band sounded like, but when I heard it recorded back, it never sounded quite the way I imagined it—until after we recorded this album. James had this amazing way of pulling the best take out of all of us.”
Vocalist and guitarist Michael Guggino agrees and notes that the band’s curious style is borne from a particular desire.
“As musicians, we are just the products of what we like,” he admits, “so, the style and writing seems natural to us. Sometimes, the style is conscious like ‘Reborn.’ I wrote that song after having both seen [The Band documentary], ‘The Last Waltz,’ and Sleep live within a week of each other. It just begged the question why there are no songs that sound like Sleep covering The Band.”
“The ultimate goal of the record,” he continues, “was just to capture this moment where we had realized and become comfortable with our roles in the band. We wanted our personalities to come through in the sound of the music. This was not an exercise in genre; this is us playing the kind of music we think deserves to exist.”
Musically, Kiss the Dirt sounds like it takes inspiration from just about every musical style and sound from the ‘60s and ‘70s, grinds it up into a fine powder, and offers it up as a sonic drug for the listener.
Lyrically, for a record that deals with chaos and mortality, the songs themselves delve mostly into rather intimate moments: a dancefloor romance, a post-breakup discussion at a doorway. It feels personal rather than pedagogic. Guggino elaborates on the intimate yet transcendent lyrics.
“I like to talk about big concepts through rock ‘n’ roll words,” he says. “Entropy is a thread that runs through all of the songs. The idea that things are flying apart and cooling down and there’s nothing you can really do about it translates well into punk and blues. It’s like Sisyphus: you have to learn to enjoy pushing the boulder up the hill. Otherwise, life is very hard. We are lucky that we get to turn our frustrations into art.”
“I think it’s funny that our songs are all about such serious subject matter,” Monteleone interjects, “because, as a band, we are a bunch of goofballs. So, while we are singing about witches and death, we have a ton of fun together, which probably comes out in the songs.”
Much of Kiss the Dirt is, unfortunately, the result of confronting personal tragedy, and Guggino reveals exactly where this catharsis and the genesis for this discussion of entropy came from.
“My mom passed away in 2010 from cancer, and after going through that, I couldn’t help but write lyrics that reflected my experience,” he shares. “There are all the levels of emotions you go through when you lose someone very close. It’s sad but not just sad—you want to celebrate their lives at the same time. There are a bunch of songs on the record that deal with that. I was also raised on folk and country music. One of the first songs I ever learned was ‘Sam Stone’ by John Prine. If you don’t know the song, the lyrics are about a Vietnam vet who comes back to the States, gets hooked on morphine, and overdoses. It’s ridiculously sad, but the lyrics are beautiful and kind of strange and funny in that John Prine way: lines like ‘Climbing walls while sitting in a chair’ or ‘Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios.’ It’s like this thing we do as humans where we want to make sense of the things that don’t necessarily make sense. This is just my crack at solving the puzzle.”
While Kiss the Dirt is a serious release about rather sobering issues, The Space Merchants’ sophomore release, above all else, is just a damn good time. The sonic joy that comes through the speakers as a result of the band realizing their singular sonic potential is a delight. There aren’t any other bands like The Space Merchants, so it’s a good thing they have become the best version of themselves, as they travel around the galaxy in search of new inspiration and another whiskey bar to play.